Monday, December 2, 2013

Q&A with author Nicole Hardy

Nicole Hardy is the author of the new book Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir. She also has written the poetry collections This Blonde and Mud Flap Girl's XX Guide to Facial Profiling. She is based in Seattle.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how did you select the title?

A: I didn’t ever set out to write a memoir; it was all I could do to write a 1,500-word essay on the topic of my spiritual crisis & prolonged virginity—and even that took a lot of prodding.
The whole thing began over drinks with a friend in San Francisco who kept telling me I was a writer with a story. He thought I had no business not telling it.

I, as you can imagine, had a whole list of reasons not to go public with details about my (non)sex life and my relationship with the Mormon church: a system of belief that doesn’t encourage doubt or digression from the faith—much less public discussions of them.

I didn’t particularly want to expose myself to the judgment or ridicule that comes in tandem with discussions of sexuality and religion. But more than that, it was difficult to believe others could relate to my situation. I’d spent a lot of years feeling very alone—like a bit of a freak--wrestling silently with the complications of my faith and its requirement of celibacy.

My friend wasn’t convinced by my fear; wouldn’t accept my reservations as reasons not to begin. You’re a writer with a story, he kept repeating.

Soon after that round of sake bombs, I began writing, and eventually had a cathartic experience reading it aloud, after which I asked myself what would happen if I decided not to be ashamed of my story, or my 36 years of celibacy? If I decided I had a right to speak about what I felt or thought or experienced—even if it would be terrifying, even if people would judge me, write me hate mail, call me a failure, a sellout, or a whore.

What happened was I got brave enough to submit those 1,500 words to the Modern Love column in The New York Times, whose editor accepted the piece.

The book deal followed a few months after, and I made myself get ready to write it. Because the day that essay hit newsstands, the (then?) editor in chief of Random House called my cell phone to tell me how much she loved my work. She thought I had a story worth telling, and though she ended up not bidding on the proposal, Susan Kamil called my cell phone. That still ranks as one of the best moments of my life.

As for the title—it was a struggle. I’m still not sure I love it. But we went through weeks of back and forth, rounds of meetings which produced truly horrifying suggestions like “Sooner or Latter.” Titles are hard, and the one we landed on—for better or worse—gets peoples’ attention and alludes to the central conflicts in the book.

Q: How difficult was it to revisit some of the more painful episodes you recount in the book?

A: It was anxiety-inducing and terrifying on levels I’d never imagined. I think if people knew how hard it is to write a memoir, no one would ever do it.

Not only did I have to dredge up the most devastating events of my life, get back in touch with the profound sense of isolation, fear, frustration, and loss associated with my break with the church, I had the added pressure to make beautiful sentences out of those events. Beautiful paragraphs, and scenes. I was a poet, learning how to write prose—primarily by failing at it.

So there was this intense pressure not to fail artistically (they’ve given me money, they’re expecting this, they’re wanting that, and hurry, hurry, hurry), while putting myself through a sort of self-imposed situational depression. For the first time ever, I couldn’t sleep. I had to ask a friend for a Xanax one afternoon, which now sounds silly and hilarious. But for someone who’s never had anxiety, never taken pills, sleeps well and powers through, it was not particularly hilarious in the moment, feeling like my chest might actually explode.

And then there were the worries about my friends and family. Will they still love me, if I write this? Will there be repercussions if I say certain things out loud?

I kept going back to a quotation by Nietzsche: "The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself." That sentiment got me through the work. Helped me sit down every day and delve in to the terror that accompanied it.

The thing is, Nietzsche can’t convince my mother. I still had to deal with the fallout, once the work was done. The painful part isn’t just in the revisiting of the past—it comes just as much from carving out a different definition of the future. From forcing change onto people I fiercely love, who are accustomed to striving for perfection, who are part of a culture that believes silence should accompany the failure to achieve it. My loved ones did not ask to have their lives changed or made public. Managing, or at least accepting, their fears is part of the process as well.

Q: At this point, what are your feelings about the Mormon church?

A: I honestly believe the Mormon church has the ability to heal people. To save them, and nurture them, and give them hope. But at the same time, I no longer believe it can be the perfect spiritual solution for everyone.

There are certain things that have been stunningly cathartic to shed: the idea that every woman’s divine identity includes wife-and-motherhood. That keeping a beautiful home and should be the most hoped-for and fulfilling aspect of my life’s work. I’m happy to be rid of the pressure to keep up appearances. To have to watch what I do, think, say, feel.

I love that I no longer have to feel hopeless when it comes to relationships with men simply because I don’t want the things an LDS woman is supposed to want. And that I no longer have to sit still and listen to well-meaning sentences that begin, “I feel sorry for you . . .” “You may think you’re happy, but . . . ” “If you were truly living the gospel . . . “

One of the best, most wonderful things, is that there’s no longer anyone in my life who’d think to judge my worth, success, or spirituality by my relationship (or lack of one) to a man or children. And very near the top of the list is the lovely letting-go of the conflict I once felt about my boundless love for certain members of the LGBTQ community; I’m grateful to be able to believe that my friends are not automatically exempt from any reward on earth or in heaven.

Still, having said all that, I would never argue against someone else’s commitment to the LDS church. I’d never try to talk anyone out of his or her faith, or assume that my experience is universal.

A man at a reading in Salt Lake City asked if I’d heard from others who have left the church because of my book, and if that made me glad. I told him I’d be devastated if I heard that kind of story. It’s never been my intention to convince anyone of any particular way of life.

My book is not about giving advice, or convincing anyone. I’m simply telling my story, acknowledging my experience, and similar ones. I believe this kind of acknowledgment makes people feel less alone. Assures them they exist, and that their struggles are real. If I had to name a ‘purpose’ for my book, I’d choose that one.

Q: Have your parents and some of the other people who appear in the book read it, and if so, what do they think?

A: Most of the people in the book came to my launch party, and celebrated with me. Even Ben showed up, though we hadn’t been in contact in years. And there he was, first in line at the signing table. I about had a heart attack when he asked me to inscribe the book to “Ben” rather than use his real name. I sat there cringing, dreading his reaction. But what he said was, congratulations.

Scott was there, too, all the Circa girls, and my parents. My brother showed up, gave me a hug and left after five minutes. I still don’t quite know how to interpret that move, but I am glad for the gesture.

My dad is the only member of my immediate family who’s been ready or willing to read the memoir. I gave him a special copy, with all the sexy parts cut out—because I don’t care who your father is, there are certain things he doesn’t need to know about you.

He kept checking in during the weeks he was reading—only a few pages at a time, because it was painful for him—and leaving me voicemails. “Hey kiddo, it’s your dad. I’m back into your book. You’re leaving Chicago, right now, and I just wanted to tell you, it’s really good.

“The way you captured (pause). I was in tears when you used only a little more than a paragraph to explain my conversion. It was perfectly done, and I’m glad you handled it well.

“I didn’t jump into it quickly and voraciously—I’m proud of you and I know you’re a good writer, but the story. I know where it’s going, that you’re separating yourself from the church, and it’s hard for me to read that. But, it’s really, really good.

“And I hope that people read it with an open mind, and understand what it is you’re talking about. Because I think it’s important for members of the church to figure out a way to be more inclusive, and meet the needs of everybody—not just those who are in the stamped pattern of ‘normalcy’ for us.

“Anyway, I just felt I needed to share. The book’s great. Well written, touching. Which is not surprising. Love you to death, honey. Talk to you soon.”

It sounds strange to say this—but I’m proud of my parents. I’ve pushed them really hard with this project, and they’ve found ways to show their support and love despite their mixed feelings, fears, and anxieties. Of course, not everyone has been so loving or supportive. But the people who matter most have (almost) all risen to the challenge.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a few essays taken from excerpts that ended up on the cutting room floor. I also have an idea for another memoir (which I said I’d never, ever do). I’m still figuring out the heart of it, so the details are a secret for now.

I have a very nebulous idea for a novel, but the word novel fills me with fear. So I’m currently in denial about that idea’s existence.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Always tip your server. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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